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Schultz reviews: ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ ‘Ford v Ferrari’ & ‘The Good Liar’

Schultz reviews: ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ ‘Ford v Ferrari’ & ‘The Good Liar’

Carl Schultz

“Charlie’s Angels” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 119 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 15:

First of all, you know perfectly well you’re not gonna need a degree in advanced physics to understand or enjoy a “Charlie’s Angels” picture. That’s not sexism or misogyny — it’s just the way it is. 

Based on the hit television show which starred actresses Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and “It Girl” Farrah Fawcett and ran on the ABC television network for five years beginning in 1976, the term “jiggle TV” was coined to describe the original “Charlie’s Angels,” a designation which referred to the series’ specifically emphasizing the sexual allure of its female leads.

Two subsequent motion pictures were adapted from the 1970s television series: ”Charlie’s Angels” in 2000 and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” in 2003 featured actresses Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu as the Angels, with comic actor Bill Murray as their buffoonish supervisor Bosley. Those pictures reflected the advances in society since the original show’s popularity, stressing the intelligence and competence of the characters in addition to their sex appeal.  

The two “Charlie’s Angels” pictures from the 2000s also highlighted the comedic nature of the original concept, turning the films into a kind of parody of both the continuing James Bond series and the techno-thrillers popular at the time, such as Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies. The “Mission: Impossible” pictures were, and are, also a continuation of a popular television show from decades before.

That trend continues in the new “Charlie’s Angels,” released Nov. 15 by Sony Pictures through its Columbia Pictures subsidiary. Written and directed by “The Hunger Games” and “Pitch Perfect” actress Elizabeth Banks, in the new incarnation of “Charlie’s Angels” most of the sex appeal of the original 1970s series has been eliminated entirely, leaving only the basic concept of the original series and the broad comedic appeal of the 2000s adaptations.

In the new “Charlie’s Angels,” the Charles Townsend Detective Agency — headed, as always, by the unseen owner, called Charlie by his employees — is now a global concern with international offices, a sort of privately-owned version of the Central Intelligence Agency or the British MI6, with teams of comely and coolly competent 20-something females as its agents.  

With the retirement of senior agent, Townsend assistant, and Angels supervisor Bosley (Patrick Stewart), a new Bosley (director Elizabeth Banks, performing double-duty) is promoted to replace him. ”Bosley,” it is explained, is more a professional rank than a name, sort of like “Lieutenant,” one step above “Angel.”  

The new Bosley sends her two former partners — Kristen Stewart’s Sabina Wilson and Ella Balinska’s Jane Kano — on a mission to recover the stolen Callisto, an energy conservation device developed by a team of scientists employed by handsome gajillionaire electronics magnate Alexander Brock (Sam Clafin). It seems Callisto can be weaponized to emulate the sensations of Electro-Magnetic Pulse and trigger fatal seizures in humans. The Angels must recover Callisto from the bad guys while training a rookie Angel to replace the promoted Banks — Naomi Scott’s Elena Houghlin, who’s also the scientist behind the stolen device.

Whatever “Charlie’s Angels” lacks in originality or intelligence (or taste), it makes up in spirit and enthusiasm. Everybody seems to be having a good time, the locations (Hamburg, Berlin, Istanbul) are picturesque, and the performances are earnest and likable. Too-cool-for-school star Kristen Stewart, who always seems to not want to get caught trying too hard in her movies, tries a little too hard in some scenes to be cute, funny, and lovable, but it’s an endearing quirk in an eminently enjoyable movie. At 119 minutes, “Charlie’s Angels” is longish, but that’s more an observation than a complaint. And there are a couple of amusing cameo appearances at the end.

Filmed on a modest budget of $48 million, “Charlie’s Angels” is receiving respectable reviews, including an approval rating of 59% from Rotten Tomatoes and 51% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that the picture “adds new flair to the franchise with fun performances from its three leads.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award “Charlie’s Angels” a grade of B-plus.  

Released to 3,452 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Charlie’s Angels” earned $8.6 in ticket sales over its opening weekend, placing third in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind the new “Ford v Ferrari” and last week’s “Midway.”  

“Charlie’s Angels” is rated PG-13 for action sequences, mild violence, language concerns and some suggestive material.

“Ford v Ferrari” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 152 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 15:

Directed by “Logan” and “The Wolverine” filmmaker James Mangold from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, “Ford v Ferrari” tells the story of the American Ford Motor Company’s rivalry with the Italian Ferrari Racing Team in building an automobile to dominate the arduous and grueling annual 24-hour auto race in Le Mans, France.

When an attempt in 1963 by American automobile magnate Henry Ford II to purchase the financially troubled Italian Ferrari corporation collapses into bitter recriminations and personal insults, the quietly furious Ford dispatches his emissary Lee Iacocca to lure the legendary race car driver Carroll Shelby to Ford Motors to design an automobile capable of beating the perpetual Le Mans winners at Ferrari.

A champion at Le Mans in 1959, Shelby was forced to retire from auto racing because of a chronic heart condition. Troubled by rumors in the racing world that he’s lost his nerve, Shelby and the determined team of eccentric engineers and designers at his financially-strapped fledgling Shelby International company agree to build a winning car for Ford . . . in 90 days’ time. To accomplish this automotive miracle, Shelby recruits the help of the hot-tempered British race car driver Ken Miles.  

When Ford executives resist the notion of hiring the 45-year-old Miles over a younger driver, Shelby explains, “Miles landed at Normandy in a busted tank and drove it all the way across Europe.” Later, when Ford attempts to fire the volatile and plain-spoken Miles, Shelby reiterates to the skeptical Iacocca, “You can’t buy a win . . . but you can buy the man who’ll give you a shot.” And together, Shelby and Miles design and build the fabled Ford GT40 Mk II and make automobile history.

With rich and colorful characterizations from Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, “Ford v Ferrari” might well have been titled “Shelby and Miles v Ford” . . . or during some sequences even “Shelby v Miles” — the dynamic between the smooth-talking Shelby and the explosive Miles erupts early and often. But that’s OK — this is the kind of high octane feel-good movie in which committed visionaries often settle differences with their fists and share an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola afterward.

But the genuine dynamic of “Ford v Ferrari” is that of individual versus big business, as the upstart visionaries at Shelby International not only upstage the millionaires, sycophants, and yes-men of the Ford Motor Company, but also use the corporation’s sponsorship — and their money — to build the car of the future, and throw a pie into the face of their smug rivals at Ferrari in the bargain. From that perspective, the picture often resembles as sort of rollicking “Animal House” on wheels.

But combined with harrowing and jaw-dropping auto racing sequences as Miles and Shelby and company persevere through races at Sebring, Daytona, and Le Mans, “Ford v Ferrari” ultimately works as both an engrossing backstage corporate drama and a spectacularly effective action adventure. As sportscaster Bob Pompeani sometimes notes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, “You won’t need your whole seat — only the edge.”

The television advertising for “Ford v Ferrari” claims that the picture “has an ending you’ll never forget.” That’s really not true — following a genuinely memorable climax, the picture contains not one but two gratuitous tacked-on endings that are easily the least memorable parts of an otherwise terrific picture. This is one movie that should literally conclude at the finish line. 

Although “Ford v Ferrari” is also being released in IMAX and Dolby Cinema formats, viewers of a certain age might find themselves wishing for a return to the wrap-around Cinerama format, to further augment the already heart-stopping scenes which effectively place the viewer into the driver’s seat of race cars traveling at speeds in excess of 200 mph. This movie easily bests such previous car racing cinematic classics as “Grand Prix” in 1966, 1969’s “Winning,” and “Le Mans” in 1971 . . . and also quietly becomes one of the best sports movies of all time.

Featuring memorable supporting performances by Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ strong minded wife, Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, playwright Tracy Letts as an oily Henry Ford II, and Remo Girone as a Godfather-like Enzo Ferrari, “Ford v Ferrari” is earning strong reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 92% from Rotten Tomatoes and 81% from Metacritic. The picture is also scoring highly with audiences — released into 3,528 theaters across the U.S. and Canada, “Ford v Ferrari” during its opening weekend easily led the Box Office Mojo Top Ten with over $31 million in earnings.

An earlier incarnation of this movie was to star Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as Shelby and Miles, but that version fell through. “Ford v Ferrari” is being released in the United Kingdom and other territories as “Le Mans ‘66.” Filmed in California, New Orleans, Atlanta, Savannah, and Statesboro, Georgia, and on location in Le Mans, France, “Ford v Ferrari” is rated PG-13 for language concerns, action sequences, and some scenes of peril.

“The Good Liar” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 15:

The cream of titled British acting nobility — Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen — collaborate onscreen for the first time in “The Good Liar,” the new crime thriller directed by Bill Condon and released Nov. 15 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Adapted from Nicholas Searles’ 2017 novel of the same name by playwright and occasional screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, in “The Good Liar” an elderly con artist meets a wealthy widow on a computer dating site, and perceives in her a potential target for a swindle.  Assuming a fictitious persona, the con artist begins to romance the woman in preparation for his deception. But the elderly widow has a few surprises of her own . . .

There’s a central flaw in the dramatic structure of “The Good Liar,” and the audience’s enjoyment of the picture relies almost completely on an individual ability to ignore it. This is one-half of a great picture. At heart it’s a heist movie, but after an enormously promising beginning during which the picture seems as lightheartedly entertaining as “The Sting” in 1975, the plot takes a few surprising twists and turns, developments which might well overload the audience’s “oh, come on” circuits.

It’s eventually revealed that McKellen’s not a lovable old rogue, but a member of a highly sophisticated team of professional swindlers, with international concerns. And when the masterful old thief encounters a former victim during an innocent shopping excursion with his new target, he reveals himself to be a nasty customer indeed. But even after the scene places the picture firmly into R-rated territory, McKellen’s seamless transition from persona to persona allows the viewer to overlook the eccentricity in anticipation of the actor’s continuing interactions with Mirren.

Even more difficult to swallow is the filmmakers’ notion that the audience during the first 90 minutes of the picture is going to accept Helen Mirren as a naive and innocent victim. The audience waits with smiling patience through McKellen’s skillfully complicated setup in anticipation of Mirren’s dropping the other shoe. But when the picture’s climactic twist arrives, it’s from a direction so outrageously obscure, not to mention unpleasant and tragic, that its sheer unexpectable audacity violates audience credibility and ruins the picture’s illusion.

Translation: There are just some plot twists that even the best actors in the world can’t pull off. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are among the best actors of this or any other generation, and both give “The Good Liar” a professional sheen, contribute rich and nuanced performances, and are to be lauded for both their versatility and virtuosity. But neither can overcome the drawbacks of the picture’s bewilderingly unsympathetic plot elements. Worse, the calculated and coldblooded nature of the picture’s denouement effectively swindles the audience out of the ability to love either of them. And that’s a real shame.

Also featuring good performances from Russell Tovey as an overprotective young relative of Mirren and the always reliable old pro Jim Carter — Charles Carson from “Downton Abbey” — as McKellen’s business partner, “The Good Liar” is receiving respectful but mixed reviews from the critics, including a 63% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and 54% from Metacritic.  

Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign a grade of B to the picture. Playing in 2,439 theaters across the United States and Canada, “The Good Liar” earned $5.6 million in box office dollars during its opening weekend, scoring an unimpressive seventh place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

Director Bill Condon was also the filmmaker behind the Academy Award-winning musical “Chicago” and the final two installments of the “Twilight” saga. “The Good Liar” is Condon’s fourth collaboration with Ian McKellen, after 1998’s “Gods and Monsters,” 2015’s “Mr. Holmes,” and Disney’s live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017.

“The Good Liar” is rated R for strong violence, language concerns and brief nudity.

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